From the Ground Up

An award-winning planning study for Lower Manhattan may act as a model for future development.

In 2006, responding to a 60 Minutes reporter’s question about why, a year after Katrina, so much of New Orleans still lay in ruins, Mayor Ray Nagin said, “You guys in New York can’t get a hole in the ground fixed, and it’s five years later.” The laugh caught in this New Yorker’s throat. The World Trade Center redesign—which after a false start had begun anew with an architectural competition and the appearance of a more democratic, transparent process—ultimately devolved into an even drearier version of what had existed previously: a “correct” memorial, developer-driven office towers, a sprinkling of starchitecture. Rather than imaginative city-building, we had gotten—big shock—a variant of business as usual: the overly prescriptive, single-vision master plan that preemptively imposes itself on a neighborhood and seals its fate.

Granted, the WTC is more fraught than most urban-planning projects, but why does it always have to play out this way—not just in New York but seemingly in every American city where disaster, urban renewal, gentrification, development, or some other trigger draws government and business together to produce a top-down, and often inhuman, urbanism that’s all too familiar?

The short answer is, it doesn’t. Two recent projects—cheek by jowl, as it happens, with the WTC—represent what may be a broadly applicable alternative to the old model. I know this because I worked on one of them. From July 2008 through last September, I was part of a team—headed by Architecture Research Office (ARO) and including the architecture and urban-planning firm Beyer Blinder Belle (BBB) and Open, a graphic-design studio—that undertook a study of the last substantial underdeveloped part of Lower Manhattan. As a journalist, my role was secondary. But observing the process introduced me to something transformative: a ground-up, flexible, nonprescriptive vision of how cities might be built and rebuilt.

The 41-acre area, named Greenwich South by the Alliance for Downtown New York, the business-improvement organization that dreamed up the project, has the kind of pros and cons that can be found in any major city. Greenwich South shows huge potential: it borders the financial district to the east; Battery Park, New York’s historic gateway, to the south; Battery Park City, a thriving, largely residential community, to the west; and the Trade Center site to the north. Rather than being the linchpin of these four potent zones, however, Greenwich South is an obstacle, and a noxious one at that. The multilane entrance to the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel to the south and a tangle of dead-end, Colonial-era streets to the north make it extremely difficult to cross from east to west. It was further isolated in 1966 by the construction of the World Trade Center superblock, which erased Greenwich Street, the area’s principal north-south connection, directly above the district. Victimized by a half century of infrastructural and urban-planning efforts, Greenwich South had become, in the Alliance’s words, “Lower Manhattan’s back alley.”

If the condition was familiar, what the Alliance hoped to achieve—and how it proposed to go about it—was novel. The plan for the WTC redevelopment includes the reconnection of Greenwich Street through the site, which will restore direct access to Greenwich South from uptown for the first time since construction of the towers. Seeing this—and recognizing that constructing a deck over the tunnel entrance would facilitate east-west movement and release millions of square feet of developable air rights—the Alliance began to think of a revived Greenwich South as not just a connector but a tabula rasa on which to create “a global model for a re-imagined 21st-century central business district.”

Rather than commissioning a master plan, however, the Alliance launched a study to speculate on how this idea might play out in the short, medium, and long terms, and at multiple scales. The inquiry proved as dense and multilayered as the participants’ visions of Green-wich South itself. Building on the Alliance’s research into existing conditions, BBB conducted a fine-grained analysis of the district and came up with roughly eight million square feet of potential development. Next, at a so-called Brain Trust dinner, some 25 architects, critics, real estate developers, and people from the art and museum worlds engaged in a freewheeling discussion of the area’s challenges, needs, and potential. They then used what they’d learned to develop five principles to guide development—“Encourage an Intense Mix of Uses,” “Reconnect Greenwich Street,” “Connect East and West,” “Build for Density, Design for People,” “Create a Reason to Come and a Reason to Stay”—as well as strategies for bringing them to fruition.

“The process to get to the framework was crucial because it had to allow good ideas to come forward and the right questions to be asked,” says ARO’s Stephen Cassell, who managed the project. Once it was in place, firms and individuals—architects, landscape designers, and artists—were invited to join the project team in “visioning exercises,” hypothetical projects that would road test the principles and serve as conversation starters. The project then concluded with a public exhibition and a comprehensive report that included “50 things to do and when to do them.”

The Greenwich South project didn’t involve the massive amounts of grassroots input that shaped, for example, the Unified New Orleans Plan (UNOP) for rebuilding that city. Nevertheless, no one ever forgot that the goal was not to design projects but to generate the five principles. The Alliance described them as “not highly prescriptive, but rather usefully adaptive: they can respond to and inform evolving interests and market conditions over the next half-century”—an implicit but forceful refutation of the monolithic planning approach that had crippled Greenwich South in the first place.

The benefits of this kind of ground-up urbanism are many: the flexibility to adapt to unforeseen circumstances; the ability to accommodate multiple agendas without violating essential objectives; a broadly representative outcome. Most significantly, the result is more likely to feel like a natural city. At one meeting, Cassell said that Greenwich South had “conditions but not qualities” and that it was their job to help it “create its own authenticity.” His comment reminded me of a newly married couple who begin with shared values and desires, and build a life in organic response to them, through improvisation, flexibility, and seizing opportunities—as opposed to an individual who takes a strictly defined place in an established clan. With luck, Greenwich South will go in the former direction, rather than doing an urban-planning version of joining Daddy’s stuffy law firm and having two perfect children.

If one of the Alliance’s goals was to create a new global model for a central business district, the other, nearly concurrent project was to some degree about influencing national policy. In 2007, a design team led by the structural engineer (and Brain Trust participant) Guy Nordenson—and including ARO’s Cassell and his partner, Adam Yarinsky—received an American Institute of Architects Latrobe Prize to study the effects of storm surges on New York City as sea levels rise, and to see if the negative outcomes might be mitigated. Understanding that it’s the complexity of natural ecologies that enables them to recover from catastrophes—and that if they’re designed properly, cities can heal themselves similarly—the team focused on the Upper Hudson Bay, which lies between New York City and New Jersey, and devised “soft infrastructure” gestures as an alternative to monumental Bechtel- and Halliburton-style engineering wars.

“Part of the motivation for doing this,” Nordenson told me after finishing the study, “is to counter the mentality of large-scale civil-engineering projects by American enterprises. This comes out of 9/11 and my experience working on Ground Zero. There was a moment of homegrown self-organizing, a democratic processing of a difficult challenge—how do you take this pile apart without hurting anybody?—which was all deliberative, out in the open, no monetary or special interests. And it worked very well.” By contrast, Nordenson cited Iraq, where “the American ability to build or fix infrastructure was totally corrupted by the central control—not just financial corruption but technical corruption, competence corruption, everything.”

But will these projects, and others like them around the country, actually gain traction? They’ve certainly gotten noticed: in January, Greenwich South received the AIA’s 2010 Honor Award for Regional and Urban Design. And last year, Nordenson’s efforts caught the attention of Barry Bergdoll, the Museum of Modern Art’s curator of architecture and design, who offered five architecture firms residencies at the MoMA affiliate P.S. 1 to develop designs based on Nordenson’s findings at different sites around the bay. The resulting exhibition, Rising Currents: Projects for New York’s Waterfront, opens at MoMA this month (see “Hope Floats”).

But persuading politicians to stop reflexively turning to the big shots is going to be tough. “Everyone knows it’s politic to say, ‘We are going to embrace a ground-up planning model and do it with the community,’” says Steven Bingler, whose New Orleans–based architecture and planning firm, Concordia, helped organize UNOP. “But the politicians are still going to want to control it, number one. Number two, the grassroots model takes longer. And the third thing is, they think having all these community meetings and communication is too expensive.”

True enough. But perhaps local and national policy-makers, after the colossal missteps and snail’s pace of top-down efforts in New York and New Orleans—and, yes, Iraq—are ready to recognize that nothing’s more expensive than getting it wrong the first time. And that the best way to fill any hole is from the ground up.

Recent Programs